With his red nose and pronounced limp, Bengt Gustafsson looks like a reindeer recuperating from a rough Christmas journey at the front of Santa's sled.

Gustafsson, the Washington Capitals' highly skilled Swedish forward, is recuperating from a touch of the flu and from a bruised ankle that kept him out of Wednesday's game in Winnipeg. He expects to play here Saturday night against the Minnesota North Stars, but he will not be at 100 percent.

Unfortunately for Gustafsson and the Capitals, he has rarely been 100 percent this season. He has been banged and battered so often that trainer Gump Embro, asked to define Gustafsson's wounds, said, "Pick any place on his body and it's sure to be bruised."

After playing the full 80-game schedule a year ago, Gustafsson already has missed six games this season. On one occasion, after he suffered a dislocated left shoulder, he sat out two straight games. Each of the other absences was for one game only.

"It is very frustrating," Gustafsson said. "You are going good and everything is perfect -- your passes, your shot, your moves. Then you sit out one or two games and come back again, with your timing just a little bit off."

In the last six games he has played, since being shifted to center between Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner, Gustafsson has collected six goals and five assists. He has also been a plus-nine player, boosting his overall rating to a team-high plus 12.

A year ago, after Washington had pried him away from Edmonton, Gusfafsson collected a modest 22 goals and 38 assists. However, he displayed instincts as a puck-handler and skater that promised a career of limitless potential.

Returning from Sweden in September, Gustafsson demonstrated increased upper-body strength and in early games he dealt some devastating body checks to unsuspecting opponents.

"When I hit guys, they're expecting it and they bend with the check," said Gustafsson's frequent linemate, Alan Hangsleben. "But they don't expect Gus to use the body and he can really punish people."

"I was much stronger, but it was not from lifting weights," Gustafsson said. "I just worked around my new house in Sweden during the summer. I guess a lot of it was just from getting a year older and growing a bit.

"I know what to expect in this league now. Last year, it was new to me, and it is different from hockey in Sweden. I am still learning and I think I will get better."

The physical hockey soon took its toll on Gustafsson's body, however, and he was a frequent absentee from practice sessions while nursing those bruises. Then, in a game against Pittsburgh, he was knocked unconscious by a Randy Carlyle check and wheeled from the ice on a stretcher.

Despite his protests, Gustafsson was held out of the next game as a precautionary measure, since he was troubled by a stiff neck. Two weeks later, he missed another game with a strained back muscle. Next came the dislocated shoulder, which, although it popped right back in, was sore enough to keep him out of two contests. Then the back acted up once more, and he watched one more game from the press box.

Tuesday in Vancouver, Gustafsson took a Canuck shot in the ankle and Wednesday he could not put on his skate boot. While he hobbled around in pain, the flu struck, too, and the freezing climate here is hardly conducive to ridding oneself of a fever.

What Gustafsson probably needs is a week in the Florida sun, to finish off the flu and bake out the bruises. With the exigencies of the NHL schedule, however, he will have to settle for a couple of aspirin and an hour in the whirlpool.